The eleventh in a series of articles about elections in Washington state by San Juan County Auditor F. Milene Henley. The county auditor administers elections and voter registration in the county.
It’s been a long election year and you probably think it’s over. In fact, some of the most important work is just beginning.
The Elections Office will continue to process and count ballots for the next 20 days, since Washington is a “postmark” state: any ballot envelope postmarked by Election Day and received before certification will be counted. If there’s a close race, we may also be conducting a hand recount of votes: if there’s difference of less than ¼ of a percent and fewer than 1,000 votes between candidates, a hand recount is required.
Once the ballots are all counted, there’s still one more step: the certification of the election by the County Canvassing Board. The County Canvassing Board is comprised of the county auditor, the prosecuting attorney and the current chair of the county council. Its responsibility is to provide oversight of elections in the county. As with the county council, all canvassing board meetings are advertised, and open to the public.
The composition of the board is deliberate. The auditor serves as the chair of the board and provides expertise in the elections process. The prosecuting attorney provides the legal perspective. And the council chair views the process from the perspective of a voter. In the event that a board member is also a candidate, with opposition, in the election being canvassed, that member must designate an alternate to serve in his or her place.
The board delegates routine elections administration tasks to the auditor’s elections staff. But there are certain responsibilities that only the canvassing board can perform. Those tasks include, for example, determining the validity of challenged ballots, rejecting ballots for counting and certifying the returns of elections.
During an election cycle, elections staff set aside any questioned envelopes and ballots for the board to review. Envelopes with no signature or a signature that does not appear to match the voter’s registration record, for example, will be set aside. Or envelopes with postmarks dated after Election Day, or envelopes for the wrong election (oddly, we occasionally get ballots for the current election in envelopes from prior elections).
Board members will also review ballots on which the voter’s intent is unclear. For example: is that mark in the box an attempt to fill in the box, or is it just a stray mark? Did the voter intend to use check marks to indicate his or her choice, rather than filling in the boxes?
Uniform standards for interpreting intent have been developed by the secretary of state, and guide the board in such decisions. Using these standards, the board determines whether a challenged ballot, or portion of a ballot, may or may not be counted.
At the final canvassing board meeting of an election, the board “certifies” the election. “Certification” requires reviewing the Abstract of Votes and the Reconciliation Report. The Reconciliation Report provides a complete accounting for all ballots issued, received, counted and rejected. Upon verification, the canvassing board members review and sign an Oath of Authenticity and the certification document. County election results are certified 10 days after a “special” (spring) election, 14 days after a “primary” (August) election, or 21 days after a “general” (November) election. County canvassing boards transmit their canvassing reports to the secretary of state immediately upon certification.
The state then certifies, within 17 days after a primary or 30 days after a general election, the returns for all state ballot measures, federal and state offices, and any legislative and judicial offices whose jurisdiction covers more than on county. Only then is it really over.